On the Track, It's Rough and Tumble

American Sanya Richards, the prerace favorite, is left forlorn after her third-place finish in the 400 meters.
American Sanya Richards, the prerace favorite, is left forlorn after her third-place finish in the 400 meters. (By Thomas Kienzle -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 20, 2008


The Olympics is about moving stories of hardships overcome, of faith and perseverance, of people with whom we come to identify during the Games until, in the end, we feel we share in the moment when they live their fondest fantasies.

Yeah, right.

Sometimes it works that way. Enough so that, all in all, we figure sport is about as level a playing field as we have.

But there's another side, too. Part of what makes sport so powerful is that, quite often, it's so awful you can barely stand to watch it. It's beyond unfair.

In what has been a generally lousy Olympics for America's track and field athletes, Sanya Richards and Lolo Jones now stand alone in misery. Both were favorites. Both had their races as good as won. Both would have been quintessential Olympic stories of people who overcame almost unbelievable bad breaks to win gold medals.

Then, as she turned for home in the 400, the powerful Richards, who lost much of last season to Beh├žet's Syndrome, felt her right hamstring grab. No warning. A perfect race suddenly ruined as she faded to third.

"I felt really good; I felt really strong. I knew that gold was mine," said Richards, who has almost completely overcome her rare and painful disease that causes chronic inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body. "I was starting to get elated on the turn because I know how my races usually go" with a strong finish.

"Then my right hamstring kind of grabbed," said Richards, who had the lowest qualifying time and was as strong a gold medal favorite as the United States had left in track. "My right leg's even now, it's sore. . . . I really got a bad break. My hamstring let me down. I feel like I worked so hard in vain."

As for Jones, her life story of poverty, homelessness and endurance would make Dickens blush. Her whole existence has been nothing but clearing hurdles. She, her four siblings and her single mother were once reduced to living in a church basement. She went to eight schools before high school. Then she lived with four families in high school as well as four more families in the summers. Yet she graduated from Louisiana State with a degree in economics. Finally, after four more years moving up in the track world, living on a shoestring, she finally emerged this season, as the best 100-meter hurdler in the world -- just in time for the Games.

Perfect timing. The Internet discovered her beauty and her mixed heritage -- Norwegian, African American, Native American and French. Still only semi-hyped, she might have been the face of American track here, because nobody else on the U.S. team seems to want the job. In such a life, what are two more hurdles?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company